Monday, June 22, 2015

You Got The Look: Villagers and Heroes

Villagers and Heroes is turning out to be one of those off-the-beaten-track MMOs that just clicks with me. In that respect it follows in a great tradition that goes all the way back to The Realm, which I used to play for some light relief between sessions back in Everquest's  Ruins of Kunark era.

Thinking back on other amuse-bouche MMOs that I ended up developing a taste for, there was Ferentus, one of the earlier Eastern imports, which never got out of beta, Endless Ages, Crowns of Power, NeoSteam, Argo and probably quite a few more I've forgotten. The king of them all was the very much-missed Rubies of Eventide, which closed down when one of the owners took umbrage with some of the players, powered down the server and locked the source code in a cupboard. Literally.

After they die many MMOs seem to slip into a ghostly half-life. Of the games listed above, Endless Ages had a couple of attempts at revival and still has people tinkering with the code trying to get something working, NeoSteam has now closed in all territories but appears to have an established "Private Server" scene and Argo was supposed to be returning under new management but now seems to have gone for good. Crowns of Power still has a website where you can download the game and even a "Server Status" page that suggests it's running but the forums tell another story.

I'm on a cart. I SAID I'M ON A CART!

The Realm, of course, just keeps on trucking. Next year will see the 20th anniversary of this venerable genre institution. That's twenty years as a subscription mmo, by the way; a 2D subscription MMO. Who said the sub model was dead?

Villagers and Heroes itself is, as I mentioned in the previous post, on its third iteration although it has continued to operate continuously through the various makeovers. This version really seems to have nailed it for me. It always seemed like a game I ought to enjoy more than I did and now I do.

Yesterday, while I was playing GW2 rather desultorily, as many people seem to be right now, what with the giant iceberg of Tuesday's update looming on the horizon, I found myself thinking, not about the new builds I'd have to be choosing, nor even about jumping ship to play my Necro on Ragefire or do my weeklies in EQ2. No, I was thinking about the plot in V&H and wondering what might happen next. And also about how nice it would be to do a bit of crafting and gathering in those bright, cartoon fields and orchards of that mystical land.

It's not always bright and colorful. Sometimes the world goes all watercolor pastel.

In the end I spent about five hours in V&H yesterday, following the plot, training up my Woodcrafting and my Bug Hunting, backtracking to complete and hand in some of the plethora of quests I seem to have acquired (and inevitably acquiring more in the process). It was a relaxing, involving and thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a Sunday.

I only stopped because I ran into an annoying bug where each NPC I approached would only reply to me with the dialog of the last person I spoke to. I'm hoping that will have fixed itself by  the next time I log in. If not I guess I'll find out how efficient the petition system is.

At low levels there seems to be an enormous amount to do and the pace of leveling is just about exactly as I like it. My new Wizard dinged level 8 last night. It took about eight hours to get there from character creation. Of course, she's also level 10 or more in almost all of the crafting and gathering disciplines, of which there are quite a few. I think she only has Cooking and Fishing left before she completes the introductory "get all these to ten and come back and see me quest" someone gave her right at the beginning.

I believethe level cap is 65 so there would seem to be a lot of mileage just in leveling up. What the end game is I have no idea and nor do I care very much. I'll think about that if I get there, which I don't imagine for a moment I will. A look at the map suggests a large and inviting world to explore, though, and if it's all as interesting and accessible as it has been so far, who knows?

Why do some MMOs feel inviting and fun to play while others can be such a struggle or feel so bland? There must be a whole raft of reasons but the look and feel is crucial. If that isn't right then whatever glories lie hidden beneath the surface are likely to stay there.

I knew an Eamon at university. He was studying architecture and talking to him taught me a lot about the relationship between form and function. If that's him he's really let himself go.

Appearances may be shallow but they have a big effect on whether I want to start playing something - if it looks delicious in screenshots it makes me want to dive in. Aesthetics aren't enough to hold the attention long-term though unless they come with  great sense of design to back them up.

Form follows function as the modernists used to say and the new UI is exemplary in that regard. Everything looks both crisp and modular and explains itself immediately by use. There's no fiddling about wondering what to press or where to click. It looks great and it works first time. Given that we spend so much of our "play" time operating the interface, to have doing so feel like a sensual pleasure in itself goes a long way towards encouraging a preference for one game over another.

Concretizing the sense of discovery.

Villagers and Heroes may not look spectacular but it's crisp and clear and charmingly stylized. When Mrs Bhagpuss peered over my shoulder and saw it for the first time she said "You're in a cartoon" and yes, it does have that look of a quality animation from the mid-late 80s about it. The typography reminds me of Wizard 101, another game whose style strongly enhanced and supported its gameplay. I really like that pseudo-brushstroke font.

The game also has solid sound direction and a really striking musical score. Unlike, say, Syp, I'm not a huge fan of video music in its own right. There are plenty of pieces and melodies that have a strong emotional effect on me but it's usually because of the memories they invoke rather than any intrinsic musicality of their own.

The music in fantasy MMOs tends to be of a type; sweeping synthesized orchestral pomp, blaring, brassy martial bombast, would-be wistful pastoral warbling and the like. Villagers and Heroes, at least in the few starting zones I've seen, is a little more sonically adventurous. It has, for example, some off-kilter, edgy, piano improvisations that nag uncomfortably in the background. Unsettling, particularly in a starting zone.

I stumble upon The Vinton Village Festival. Prancing Pony eat your heart out.

At one point I even stopped playing to listen, which is a very odd thing to find yourself doing. I'm not sure whether it's a good decision commercially but I certainly prefer it to the usual fantasy elevator music. I guess that jazz feel is all of a piece with the general maturity and sophistication of the aesthetic.

For a game that has a cartoonish look that would appear on the surface to be aimed at a younger audience Villagers and Heroes has an oddly adult feel. The main storyline is mostly the usual fantasy nonsense but there's a strong undertone of sexual jealousy and infidelity running through it. I seem to remember that the original launch of the game as A Mystical Land made reference to fairy tales and there's definitely some of that Germanic fairy tale darkness around the edges.

Let my light banish your darkness!

What with a very busy week at work and the fallout from tomorrow's giant patch bomb Villagers and Heroes probably won't get much play for a while now but it's done enough already to establish a firm position in the hierarchy of "MMOs I Might Play Quite Often", something the previous two versions never really achieved.

I was even looking at the cash shop, which looks very reasonably priced, especially to someone coming from ANet's outrageously expensive Gem Store, and there's a better than even chance I'll spend some money there if I carry on playing. I fancy a house and some sheep and the bags are really cheap. As Maldwiz pointed out to Tobold, we all have the same 24 hours in our days so what we do with them is our choice but the choice is far too hard.


  1. Are you still having the dialog bug? If so where is it at (which NPC?) I'll try to fix it.

    Really glad you are enjoying the game! :)

    1. Thanks for the offer - that's customer service above and beyond the call of duty! Fortunately I found out what caused the "bug" - I went to the forums and posted it there and while I was reading the thread (in which several other people mentioned having the same problem) I came across a suggestion to look for the missing biscuit in that little "store items" bag.

      Apparently if your inventory is full when you receive a quest item that's where it goes (I imagine you know that!). Anyway, I looked inside and there it was. Once I had the biscuit in my real inventory the quest was able to proceed. I think having the quest item go into "overflow" is a good idea but it probably needs to made a bit more obvious what's happening.

      The big GW2 patch this week has taken up most of my gaming time but I'm certainly going to be playing more V&H and no doubt I'll be posting about it again when I do.


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